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How to Choose the Right Electric Guitar to Buy

Updated on November 28, 2016

Introduction

Every guitar player likes buying a new guitar. The anticipation, the tone, the exciting new looks and the feel of the instrument in your hands all make buying a new instrument a great experience. However, with there being so much choice out there it can be difficult to decide on the right guitar for you; with new guitars costing at least $200-$300 and often a lot more (upwards of $2000 for high-end hand built models) it’s important to make sure you spend your money wisely. The tips in this article will give you everything you need to make an informed, wise decision on which new guitar to buy.

Before You Shop

Before you go out shopping, make sure you’ve decided on a few basic things. Firstly, what’s your budget? Make sure you decide how much you’re willing to spend before you go out, as it will prevent you from spending too much and being drawn in by salesmen’s tactics. Many great guitars can be bought for far less than most people think, so don’t trick yourself into believing that you have to spend a lot to get a great guitar. That said, if you want to spend more, go ahead! If you have the money, treat yourself to something really special. When deciding on your budget make sure to factor in the cost of a full service and set up by an experienced luthier; factory setups often aren’t great due to the fact that they cost the company money, which in turn reduces profit margins. A good setup usually costs between $50 and $80, and although this might seem like a lot it is definitely worth it. A well serviced guitar plays better, sounds better and feels better – in short, a good setup is essential. A $400 guitar with a good $60 setup will always be a better guitar than a $500 model that hasn’t been serviced or set up properly.

The next thing to decide is roughly what style of guitar you’d like. This will help you to narrow down your search and save a great deal of time. You might have a very specific idea, such as “I want a Les Paul guitar, just like my favourite guitar player”. Often, however, people have basic ideas of what they’d like to buy, such as “I play metal music, so I want a guitar that is good for metal” – that might be as far as you get until you get to the music shop. If you’re having trouble deciding, then base your decision on the genres of music that you like to play – nearly every guitar is better suited to some genres than others. What guitars do your favourite players use? That could give you a good indication of what to go for.

One of the most important rules to remember when buying a new guitar is to make sure you try before you buy. No matter how many YouTube videos you watch and magazines you read, you’ll never get as good an indication of what the guitar is like than you will if you play it for yourself. This is vital because videos and written reviews aren’t always representative of what the instrument is like in real life.

The other parts of your setup (such as your amplifier, your pedals, and even the pick you use) greatly affect the sound of the guitar. When you try out a guitar, make sure to try it either with your current gear or with gear that is very similar. This will ensure that the sound you get in the shop is accurate – nothing worse than getting home and finding that your new guitar isn’t as good as you thought it was.

What to Consider When You Buy

There are a number of different elements that contribute to the sound quality of a guitar, but the most important is generally the pickups. Guitar pickups are coils of wire wrapped around magnets and placed under the strings; when the strings vibrate an electrical signal is created in the coil of wire that then gets sent to your amplifier. The style of pickups in your guitar has a massive effect on tone because the pickups are the very thing that makes your guitar electric – different pickups will be affected by string vibrations in different ways, and thus create different tones.

When choosing pickups, there are two main types to choose from: single coils and humbuckers. Single coil pickups, as the name suggests, only have one coil of wire. They are great for getting nice clean and lightly overdriven tones, but they often create annoying humming sounds at higher gain settings. Humbuckers have two coils, and although some players feel the clean tones from humbuckers aren’t as convincing (remember, however, that this is entirely subjective – other players love them) they are great for overdriven tones as the double coil helps to reduce the hum created by distortion (hence the name “humbucker”).

Most pickups are “passive” – that is, they don’t have an external power source giving them energy. Some, however, are “active”, which means that they are powered by a battery stored inside the guitar body that gives the pickup extra output. This makes them great for heavy styles like metal and djent, but it can be difficult to get clean tones out of very high output pickups because they push amplifiers into overdrive so easily.

Another important aspect to consider is the type of bridge on the guitar – the bridge is the metal part that the strings are attached to on the body. Some guitars have what is known as a “fixed bridge”, where the strings are fixed in place and the bridge doesn’t move; this offers greater tuning stability and easier setting up of the instrument (it is also usually cheaper). The other option is to have what is known as a “tremolo system”, or what is more commonly called a “whammy bar”. The bridge pivots on one side so that a metal bar can be used to change the pitch of the strings as you play. These are great fun and are recommended if you do a lot of lead guitar playing (particularly in heavy blues or rock settings), but they are a little more fiddly and the tuning stability on cheaper models can be poor. That said, a good setup can often fix most (if not all) tuning issues with a tremolo system.

Although tone and playability are the most important things to consider, don’t forget about looks! A good looking guitar is not only nice to have but it will also encourage you to play more. That will make you a better player – something that is very valuable. The excitement of getting a great looking guitar is awesome, so don’t pass it up just because you feel you need to be “sensible” - the electric guitar is all about fun!

One Final Point

If you only take one thing away from this article, let it be this: the name on the head stock does not magically make a guitar sound better. Sure, it can be nice to have a “real” American Fender, but once the novelty has worn off you’ll realise the money probably could’ve been better spent elsewhere. When trying a guitar, put all thoughts of branding and price out of your mind and just play. Listen. Feel. What is the guitar really like? Just because a company charges more for a particular model, it does not mean it will sound better or is of significantly better quality – it simply means they think they can sell it for more. Listen with YOUR ears, not anyone else’s, and certainly not the ears of the salesperson. If Gibson say that their new pickup model sounds better than the old one, play both and decide for yourself. Is it really worth the extra $50 or $100? Maybe, maybe not. The cheaper model might actually be the one you prefer!

Hopefully this article has given you everything you need to know to buy your perfect guitar. It might be something entirely unexpected, so try as many guitars within your budget as possible and have fun – enjoy your new guitar!

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